As Saul Bellow once wrote, we have a problem talking about Mozart. It is the fear of having to contemplate transcendence and being embarrassed by something for which we have no vocabulary. To make matters worse, Mozart composed sublime music but, in contrast to Beethoven, had the wrong personality for sublimity, being prone to clowning and lavatory humour. Think of the babyish and buffoonish Amadeus of Peter Shaffer's play. Or the impetuous, tousle-haired and disconcertingly North American figure in the Milos Forman film, stalked through the Vienna night by Antonio Salieri to the sound of the Dies irae from the Requiem. Franz Niemetschek, Mozart's contemporary, whose biography (not the first, pace Berghahn, but the second) was published in 1798, concedes Mozart's propensity for jokes but presents him as a gentle soul who, as Cliff Eisen remarks in his introduction, is almost a candidate for sainthood. 'Who can unravel all the countless felicities, the fathomless beauties of his art?' Niemetschek asks: 'Who can describe in words his new, original, sublime and sonorous music. Listen with an open mind, and you will feel this more keenly than can be expressed in words.'
LRB 5 July 2007 | PDF Download